The door banged open, thudding against the stone wall. Vydar looked up, the shadow of anger clouding his face.
“What is this?” he said in a dangerous – though completely calm – voice.
Dan strode into the room, closely followed by the guard who, until recently, had been outside the door.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the guard said, breathing heavily. “I told him you were in a meeting, but he wouldn’t listen.”
The man whom Vydar had been speaking to turned around. It was Carr.
“What are you doing, Dan?” he asked, disappointment evident in his voice.
Carr had been the commander of Llynar, and had overseen all of Dan’s training. Even though Dan had generally disliked the training, the disappointment in Carr’s voice cut deep, sapping some of his confidence.
“I – I have something I believe Vydar will want to hear. It cannot wait,” Dan said.
They all looked at him.
“Very well,” Vydar said. “I will hear you. But only after,” – he held up a finger – “I finish with Carr.” He looked pointedly at Dan.
Dan stood still, plainly saying that he was going nowhere. He had waited long enough for this. He wasn’t going to let Vydar forget about him.
Vydar watched him for a moment, then turned to the guard. “Leave us,” he said.
The guard turned and left, pulling the door closed behind him. Vydar turned back to Carr, ignoring Dan.
“I’ve asked, Carr.”
“And I’ve given you my answer.”
Vydar sighed. “Then you leave me with no choice. You know I can’t let you go.”
“It’s not a matter of ‘letting’ me go at all,” Carr said. “I’ve made up my mind.”
“Can I say nothing to convince you? Nothing at all?”
Carr was silent for a moment. “No, Vydar,” he said. “Nothing. I’d prefer to leave as friends; don’t force me to break an order you know I can’t keep.”
Vydar sat back and considered Carr with a firm gaze. “Your loyalty lies with your wife rather than me then.”
“What kind of man would I be if it didn’t?” Carr asked softly. “I have to do this. I have to go.”
Vydar watched him for a moment longer. “I won’t order you to stay,” he said at length. “You’re right, I would rather not give you an order I know you would never keep. I only wish that you would wait until the war is truly over.”
“My wife has waited for a long time to rejoin her family in Lindesfarme. She won’t wait any longer.” Carr shrugged. “It will be over soon enough. And when it is, everyone and everything will be in disarray for a short time. I would rather be settled before all that.” He stood. “My family leaves for Einar in the morning, and I go with them. You’ll send Gideon soon?”
Vydar sighed, but nodded. “Once he finishes with his assignment. Don’t worry. I’ll return your son to you soon enough.”
Carr held out his hand. “Then I’ll say goodbye, Vydar.”
Vydar took it in both of his own. “Goodbye,” he said, “and remember that you’ll always have a place at my side should you need it.”
“And you remember that my sword is always yours, no matter whose lands I’m living in,” Carr said.
Vydar smiled. “Go,” he said. “You shouldn’t keep your wife waiting any longer.”
Carr turned and left, closing the door once more behind him.
The silence grew tense.
“Now,” Vydar said, sitting back in his chair and regarding Dan through slightly narrowed eyes, “why are you here?”
Dan swallowed. This was it. He was either about to get away with blackmailing a Valkyrie… or he would be blasted into oblivion by some form of otherworldly magic.
Dan considered how best to say it. He decided against telling Vydar how he had found out. The revelation would be enough. Let Vydar assume the worst. Gathering all of his fast-disappearing confidence, he looked up right into Vydar’s deep blue eyes, and said: “I know you’re planning on betraying the alliance.”
There was no motion. There was no sound. Vydar watched Dan, as calmly as if he had said nothing at all, and Dan stared right back, waiting for the blow to fall. It was a full minute before Vydar stirred or said a word.
“I see,” he said calmly.
Dan blinked. That was it? “I’ll tell others,” he said. “There are warriors of Jandar and Ullar everywhere. I’ll tell them what you’re planning, unless you do what I want.”
Vydar nodded, as if in approval. Dan didn’t like this. How could the Valkyrie be so calm? “And what if I deny these claims?” Vydar asked.
“I have proof,” Dan said, knowing full well that his proof was only his word and a string of explainable coincidences. Vydar needn’t know that though.
Vydar nodded again. “And what is to prevent me from keeping you silent?”
Dan swallowed again. “I’ve told someone,” he said. “If anything happens to me, they’ll spread your plans. Everyone will know it within a day.”
“An ingenious plan,” Vydar said. “I commend you.”
They were both silent.
“Well?” Vydar said, in his same calm voice. “I assume you intend to make demands?”
Dan couldn’t tell if his plan was working or backfiring, but he was too far in now to back out.
“I want you to summon Heleer,” he said. “The woman I was with back on Isadora. If you bring her here, I’ll keep silent.”
Vydar nodded slowly, apparently thinking. “You want a woman in exchange for the fate of the war and of Valhalla?” He watched him for a moment. “There are other women, Dan.”
Dan almost laughed. “It must be her.”
Vydar’s eyes narrowed. And then his whole demeanor changed.
Taking a breath, he stood and stepped down from the raised portion of the floor which his chair sat on. He stood in front of Dan, considering him. “I can’t summon her, Dan.”
Dan looked up into his shadowed face. “Then I’ll tell the alliance what you’re planning,” he said, forcing as much determination into his voice as he could.
“You aren’t listening to me,” Vydar said. “I can’t summon her. If I were able to, I would have summoned her the first time you asked me. But that’s not how summoning works.”
Dan just stared at him. “But… you summoned me.”
Vydar turned and punched the air. Or at least Dan thought he did. When Vydar drew his fist back, Dan saw that it had left behind a swirling blue mist. The mist grew, flat like a circle, increasing in diameter, almost stretching from ceiling to floor.
Dan looked between the mist and Vydar, who was watching it calmly. Was this magic?
The disk of mist stopped growing, and a darkness began to spread outwards from its center. The darkness grew until it was at the very edges of the mist, and then it cleared, showing Dan a dark room, as if he were looking through a window.
“This is my wellspring,” Vydar said calmly, as if he were pointing out a facet of the door behind Dan. “This is not a portal, merely an image.”
Dan stared into the dark room. It was circular, and lit by dancing blue lights. The stone floor sloped steadily downwards, until it sank into a pool of shimmering, lightly rippling water in the middle. The blue light seemed to be coming from it, although the water itself was shadowed. Ringing the room were small alcoves set into the wall at regular intervals. Nothing else was there.
“The wellspring is magical,” Vydar said, “even to the Valkyrie who uses it. It tells us what to do; we are merely the instruments it uses. You were summoned because the wellspring showed you to me. The wellspring has not shown me Heleer; therefore I cannot summon her. That is simply how the magic works. All Valkyrie have tried to overcome this limitation, but all have failed.”
“I don’t believe you,” Dan said. It was true. He didn’t believe Vydar. He couldn’t. There had to be a way to summon Heleer.
“A wellspring is given its powers by a magical amulet,” Vydar said, continuing as if he hadn’t heard Dan. “You see the fifteen pedestals along the wall? One for each amulet. If one wellspring were to have all fifteen amulets, then a Valkyrie could control the summoning. Then we could summon whoever we wished. Then I would be able to summon Heleer for you, which I would gladly do. But only if we have all fifteen amulets. And one Valkyrie will only have all fifteen when this war is over, because that is exactly what we are fighting about.”
Dan shook his head. “There must be a way,” he said. “There must be another way.”
“There is,” Vydar said.
Dan, surprised, looked at him.
“The war,” Vydar said, watching Dan closely. “We must win the war, Dan. Then you can have everything you want.”
“But…” Dan’s anger at Vydar was quickly being replaced with his need to be reunited with Heleer. Absorbed in what he was learning, he had just realized something. “Even if the war ends as everyone says it will, and you defeat Utgar,” he said, “there’s still the alliance. They’ll never give up their amulets.”
Vydar nodded. “No. They won’t. I think they all know this, but they’ve allowed themselves to become blinded by words of honor and loyalty. They truly believe such things can be sorted out by diplomacy. The only way to get all of the amulets is to defeat them all. And I can only do that,” – Vydar glanced at Dan – “by betraying them.”
There it was. Confirmation.
“So that’s your plan, then,” Dan said. “You mean to betray the alliance and steal their amulets, even as they defeat Utgar for you.”
“Something along those lines, yes,” Vydar said calmly. The mist-image went suddenly black and evaporated. Vydar went back to his chair and sat down. “I’ll strike a deal with you, Dan,” he said, facing him once more, his face serious. “You keep what you know to yourself. You speak of it to no one. You let me carry out whatever my plans are. Then, when they are complete, when I have the amulets, I will bring Heleer to you, or you to her, or whatever combination of the two you wish. I will even put you on a completely different world if you want.”
“And what if you don’t honor your part?” Dan asked.
“I will,” Vydar said quietly. “I understand your caution, Dan, but you have very little choice in the matter. You could spread what I intend to do, and then the war would rage on for years, and you would most likely never see Heleer. Or you could let me win the war, and trust that I’ll honor my promise. There’s nothing I can say which will calm your doubts, except that I will do as I have promised.”
Dan thought about it. Vydar was right. Now that he understood why Vydar had to win, he didn’t have a choice. Spreading Vydar’s plan would do nothing but prolong the war, and likely prevent Dan from ever seeing Heleer again. His only option was to let Vydar win, and hope that he summoned Heleer when the dust settled. Dan almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Here he was blackmailing Vydar, and he was the one backed into a corner. There was no other way out. He would have to trust Vydar.
“All right,” he said, hating the words as he said them. “But know that if you don’t honor your promise, nothing will keep me from her. Not you, not the wellsprings, not all the armies of Valhalla itself.”
“I would expect no less,” Vydar said. The words weren’t a mockery; Dan realized he meant them. “There’s one more thing I will ask of you,” Vydar said. “There is an expedition leaving in the morning. They are traveling to where my spies have located Valkrill’s wellspring. They will infiltrate the caverns, steal the amulet, and return it to me.” He watched Dan.
Dan immediately spotted a loophole. “What’s to prevent them from using the amulet?” he said. “Isn’t that risky, knowing they could start summoning their own army?”
“No,” Vydar said. “The amulets have long ago transferred their power to the wellsprings. Now they serve only to control it when they work together. Alone and without a wellspring, they are useless. But that’s not why I mentioned the expedition.” Vydar leaned forwards. “I want you to go with them.”
Dan was genuinely bewildered at the request. “Why?” he asked. “What could I do?”
“You would be a scout,” Vydar said. “You’ve been isolated your whole life on Isadora. What others would consider normal and ignore, you would notice right away.”
“No,” Dan said, “I meant, why would you want me on that mission? It sounds like something only the most experienced soldiers would do.”
“Because,” Vydar said, “I know that you will do anything to get that amulet, and return it to me. Without it, I cannot summon Heleer. You just said nothing would keep you from her. Well, I must have Valkrill’s amulet if I’m to summon Heleer. I need you on that expedition, because I know you’ll get it to me no matter what.”
Dan glanced at Vydar. For the first time, he sensed that something was off in the Valkyrie’s words. Was that the real reason? Or was Vydar trying to get rid of him, to isolate him on a dangerous assignment before he did any more damage?
Either way, there was little Dan could do about it. He had to trust that Vydar would summon Heleer when the war was over, and not doing what he wanted was a sure way to prevent that. He had no choice. He had to go on this expedition, even if it was a suicide mission into the forces of Utgar himself.
After leaving Vydar’s audience chamber, Dan was shown to the armory, where he was supplied with a suit of light armor. It was designed more for mobility and concealment than protection.
“Helps keep you hidden,” said the armorer, a short man with a thick beard. “Made out of what the soulborgs call ‘Heserite filaments’.” He tapped the suit. “Bends light around the edges. You’ll be far from invisible, but it should help to make enemies miss you if you aren’t completely hidden.
“This,” the man said, picking up what Dan divined a moment later to be a helmet, “will help you see under any conditions. The goggles there are blast-resistant, and they have night vision and thermal-sensing capabilities. Use the thermal for when you’re in fog or smoke; it’ll be like broad daylight. The dial on the top there can zoom your vision in better than a hawk.
“And this,” – the man seemed to be getting more excited with each new piece of gear – “is a sensor pack. Slots right onto the back of your suit there, plugs into the helmet like so, and you can scan the area around you for heat signatures and traces of arcane residue.
“Now take good care of that gear,” he called after Dan when they were finished. “I’ve repaired it twenty-seven times already, I don’t want to make it twenty-eight.”
After the armory, Dan was escorted to the grand hall, where he ate a lunch of military rations. Then a guard came for him, and led him outside of the Citadel, across a field, and into a small bunker. The guard said Vydar was inside, and would brief him on where Valkrill’s wellspring was. Inside, stairs led down a dark passageway, winding downwards in tight circles, until he began to hear voices.
“We lost them in last night’s fog, but we’ve found them now. It looks like they moved through the night. They’re much closer to Joren than we thought.”
Dan went down the last of the steps, and found himself in a dimly lit underground room. Several humans, kyrie, and even a few soulborgs were there, most pouring over a map of Anund. Vydar was easily recognizable at the head of the table.
“Have they done anything yet?” he asked.
“No,” said a heavily decorated kyrie on Vydar’s left. “But they’re headed straight for Joren. They’ll be there by nightfall.”
There was a short silence.
“What do you suggest?” Vydar asked, continuing to stare at the map.
“Evacuate the village,” the kyrie said. “Let the orcs have it. We can send a force out from Vilund to route them by the next morning.”
Vydar shook his head. “No,” he said. “If we evacuate, the villagers will be sitting ducks. They’ll be slowed down with food and supplies, plus the young and the weak. The orcs would decimate them.”
“They have some soldiers with them,” the kyrie said. “The orcs are cowards. They would run once they’ve gotten their taste of blood.”
“After slaughtering a good number of the soldiers, and possibly quite a few civilians,” Vydar muttered. “I can’t take those losses.”
“It’s either those or the whole village,” the kyrie said.
“This isn’t a game of numbers, Terav,” Vydar said. “I’m not going to sentence my soldiers to death because they represent a smaller number to be lost.”
“You don’t have a choice, Vydar,” the kyrie called Terav said.
Vydar stood, his wings flaring slightly. “There is always a choice, Terav,” he said. “A choice of who to kill. It’s a choice I’ve had to make many times before, and one I won’t make again. There must be other soldiers nearby.”
“There aren’t,” Terav said. “Vilund is our closest garrison, but they can’t get there in time.”
Vydar hunched his soldiers, staring at the map.
“There’s nothing for it, Vydar,” Terav said. “Evacuation is the obvious choice. Sometimes you must sacrifice the few to protect the many.”
“The few,” Vydar muttered. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the few of Anund.” He looked up at Terav. “Letting them be hacked apart by orcs seems like a poor way to repay them.”
Terav looked to the ceiling in exasperation. “You either sacrifice a few villagers or you sacrifice them all, Vydar,” he said. “There’s no other way.”
Vydar seemed to be considering the map, adding things up in his head. “There is another way,” he said softly. He looked up at Terav, and then at a guard standing nearby. “Bring my sword,” he said.
Terav threw up his hands. “We need you here, Vydar! You can’t go to the defense of every—”
“I will protect my people!” Vydar shouted. The whole room fell instantly silent.
Vydar looked back at the map. “I owe them that much,” he said.